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'Life, Animated' rings true for autistic children in the Lehigh Valley

Morning Call - 2/24/2017

Feb. 24--The smiles Brittany Reiger gets from her children are few and far between.

The Quakertown mother's three children -- Benelli, 5, Adeline, 4, and Gunner, 2 -- are all nonverbal and on the autism spectrum.

But start to sing "Let It Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen," and it's a different story. Then they not only smile, they join in.

"I would have never cracked through without Disney," Reiger said.

She's among many Lehigh Valley parents who have discovered a way to connect with their autistic children through the world of Disney.

That connection is the basis of the film "Life, Animated," a documentary directed and produced by Roger Ross Williams, an Easton native who wrote and directed the 2009 Oscar-winning short subject documentary, "Music by Prudence." His current film follows the life of Owen Suskind, who did not speak until he and his family discovered a way to communicate through Disney animated films. "Life, Animated" is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at tonight's ceremony, which airs on ABC.

Using children's interests to advance their development is a key principle of intervention, said Rebecca Landa, director for the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland. "Disney gives us a platform for establishing a joint interest, a connection with the person with autism," she said.

In "Life, Animated," you learn that as a preschooler Owen would watch Disney films over and over, often rewinding scenes to watch repeatedly. All the while he continued to hole up inside himself, refusing to speak and make eye contact with his family. Then one day, while he was watching the 1989 film "The Little Mermaid," his family listened as Owen was saying something that sounded like "juice." As it turned out, Owen didn't want juice, he was reciting a phrase from the movie: "Just your voice."

Ron Suskind grabbed his son and said to him "just your voice," which Owen then looked him in the face and repeated.

"It was the first time in a year he looked at me," Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, says in the film.

Realizing they stumbled upon a way to communicate with their little boy, Owen's parents also immersed themselves in the world of Disney. In the film, Ron Suskind recounts hiding under bed covers and using a hand puppet of the character Iago from "Aladdin" to have his first conversation with his son. "Owen, Owen," Suskind says in the bird's craggy voice. "How does it feel to be you?"

"Not good," the child responds, "because I don't have any friends."

It's a bittersweet moment as Suskind realizes his son is lonely and that he'd have to remain in character to continue the conversation. Suskind would come to understand why Owen opened up to Iago in a way he couldn't with his parents, and why he had memorized the scripts of 50 Disney movies.

"He's using the films to make sense of the world he lives in," his father says in the film.

Lisa Basara of Lower Saucon Township had a similar experience with her 7-year-old son, Dominic, who was diagnosed with autism at about age 3 1/2.

His eye contact stopped, along with his interaction with his family. Meanwhile Dominic's twin brother, Patrick, continued to develop normal speech and learning skills.

Basara said she identifies with Suskind since both their sons had similar challenges.

"You really do seek anything, any outlet that you can use to connect with your child," Basara said. "For us, it was the 'Cars' movie."

"Cars" is a 2006 animated film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Disney about a group of racing cars. One of the main characters is a bright red car, Lightning McQueen.

"If you ask any of our family members or friends to name something that you associate with Dominic, they will say Lightning McQueen," Basara said.

Basara noticed Dominic's focus on "Cars." So she helped him build a large collection of diecast Lightning McQueen cars and others from the movie that he plays with to mimic the racing that goes on in the film.

Through the cars, Basara is able to interact with Dominic, who struggles with verbal and social skills. She has used "Cars" characters and scenarios to teach Dominic how to safely cross a street and how to stay close by in a store. To encourage him to complete a task, she makes playing with his car collection a reward.

Disney films -- from the old classics to the new ones with Pixar -- offer kids predictable stories, intensely animated characters with exaggerated features and catchy songs.

Judith Miller, a psychologist and training director at the Center for Autism Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said one of the main reasons Disney films and TV in general work so well for autistic children is that they make very clear what you are supposed to focus on.

"It's a simplified way to see social interaction," Miller said. "Movies and TV focus your attention on the most important thing."

Kids on the autism spectrum can become overwhelmed in a social setting, with too many people and sounds around them, preventing them from being able to focus on one person's question or one activity at a time. Reciting lines from the movies can be a way for them to learn speech and determine context for conversation.

"A lot of kids repeat lines and for a significant number that becomes a bridge to natural language," Miller said.

Some kids, she said, will tweak the movies' lines over time to make them their own and use them in a social situation.

That would be a "big jump" for the three Reiger children, whose verbal skills have been slow to emerge, their mother said.

During a recent trip to Live, Learn & Play, a new sensory gym and resource center in the South Mall, Gunner and Adeline Reiger hopped on foam-covered equipment as Benelli, a budding artist, sat and sketched Olaf, a snowman from "Frozen."

Reiger is hoping what they memorize in Disney movies will eventually translate into traditional language, that the movies become the stepping stones to more interaction with the world.

It's a vision shared by many parents of autistic children and one that holds promise.

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(c)2017 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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